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Mark Donaldson called the police at 5:34 a.m. on August 14, 2020. He never saw the person who stole the bicycle, the electric saw, and the gas-powered weed wacker from the backyard of his house in east Denver. He remembers looking out his kitchen window early that morning; he remembers how the first trickle of light was filtering onto his dirt-and-grass lawn, illuminating the chain-link fence, the alleyway, and the broken padlock dangling from the gate.
“Well, shit,” he thought to himself.
In the hierarchy of criminal behavior, the thefts were hardly notable: The haul—including the cost of the broken metal lock—totaled around $2,000. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing rules, a Denver police officer took the incident report over the phone. “[Donaldson] related that this is the second break in, in the last two weeks,” the report noted. “[Donaldson] related that he does not have video cameras on site and the homeless population in his area has grown considerably. [Donaldson] related that the homeless are a contributer [sic] to the theft of items from his residence and in the surrounding area.” Denver police didn’t make any arrests in the case, and Donaldson’s possessions were never found.
When his wife, Denise, took a job in Denver as a traveling nurse in 2017, Donaldson knew this East Colfax neighborhood might have some issues. The house was a few blocks off the main artery, which has long been notorious for nefarious activity. Still, the neighborhood was ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, something that was important to the couple. Cute, low-slung homes with grassy front yards dotted the streets. As a Black family living in a majority white city, they found the neighborhood comfortable, progressive, untapped.
Donaldson, 42, had always accepted the transient population as part of the fabric of the community. He’d been mindful about teaching his preschool-age daughter to respect those living on the fringes of society, to never judge anyone who needed help. He’d be working from his desk in the family room when he’d look out the window and see people walking shopping carts down the street. He’d give a little nod to the seemingly drunken men who sometimes passed by his home.
But life changed in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic: There was illness, unemployment, uncertainty, and death. There were sharp increases in drug and alcohol abuse and mental health crises. The population of people experiencing homelessness grew.
Between the August 14, 2020, break-in at Donaldson’s house and late December 2021, nine people were murdered within the 16 blocks that make up the neighborhood—just one fewer than in the previous 30 months combined. Aggravated assaults in the area increased by more than 30 percent during the pandemic. In the year and a half since the bike, the saw, and the weed wacker were stolen from Donaldson’s house, the East Colfax neighborhood averaged nearly five auto thefts per week—among the highest rates in the city.
Donaldson had witnessed so many crimes and so much odd behavior since summer 2020 that he had trouble remembering it all. There was the hit-and-run in front of the house, and the people having sex in the alley out back. This past November, Donaldson saw a man tackle a woman in the empty lot across the street.
“I feel I’ve lost my community,” Donaldson said as he stood on his lawn and scanned his street this past winter. Neighbors were now locking fence gates that led to their already locked front doors. Folks looked both ways before getting into cars parked in driveways to make sure they weren’t about to get carjacked. Donaldson couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. He was so concerned that he didn’t allow his daughter to play in the front yard anymore. He’d never thought of himself as a victim, but here he was, afraid for Denise and his daughter, Natali, who was four.
After the 2020 break-ins, he bought security cameras. The small, domed lenses served as visible warnings to anyone who approached his house. He used to have one dog, but now he had three; the trio of terriers roamed the backyard, barking and yowling at anyone who passed. Donaldson started to keep a knife on him at all times, even when he slept.
Was all this really worth the psychological stress? he wondered. “I don’t think we’re going to make it here,” he said. When he allows it, that singular day, August 14, occupies his thoughts. “It was never about a bike,” Donaldson said. “It’s what it signifies. Stuff can always be replaced. This is about feeling safe in your own home, on the street where your family lives. When that’s taken away, when do you feel safe again?”
August 14, 2020, began with a gunshot. Multiple gunshots, actually. A 911 call was made less than an hour into the 227th day of the year: Shots fired at a street corner in Aurora, not far from Children’s Hospital Colorado. Fifteen minutes later, in Denver, there were gunshots in an apartment complex on Quebec Street. Around the same time, someone heard shots on I-270, in Adams County.
Between midnight and 11:59 p.m. on Friday, August 14, 77 vehicles were reported stolen in Denver. Dozens of shots-fired complaints were logged across the metro area. A party in Englewood ended with gunfire and a police standoff. At least nine people were the victims of violence and wouldn’t live to see Saturday. Among the crimes were a shooting in Adams County, a hit-and-run outside Coors Field, and a double homicide in Aurora.
In the midst of it all, as residents in cities from Broomfield to Castle Rock went about their days, people noticed things had gone missing. A woman in Arapahoe County realized cash had been taken from her car, which was parked in the driveway of her suburban home. In Glendale, Winpeng Li couldn’t find the bicycle he’d locked up outside his apartment complex. In Commerce City, a man called the police to report that someone took off with his motorcycle. Across town, another man notified law enforcement that his old SUV had disappeared from his driveway. A retired sheriff’s deputy from Trinidad called Denver police to report his $3,000 trailer had vanished from the back of his daughter’s house in the Highland neighborhood. “I was very trusting; it was my own fault,” the man said. “Society has changed.”
Joe and Jossline Roland may have been similarly naive. On that Friday morning, the Rolands woke up in their Aurora house and headed to work—Joe as an executive with a janitorial services company in Englewood and Jossline as the office manager at a law firm near Cherry Creek. The couple and their five kids had a Saturday boat trip to Chatfield Reservoir on their minds. Joe had plans to buy a used car later that evening. It’s a steal, he told a buddy.
This past fall, 16 Aurora teens were wounded in shootings over a three-week span. More recently, the driver of a stolen car in Westminster was shot and killed after pulling a gun on police officers; a few days after that incident, in Arvada, an eight-year-old girl was struck and injured near her school by a man who’d boosted a vehicle and was fleeing police. “Everything feels broken,” said Thomas Pyszczynski, a University of Colorado Colorado Springs psychology professor who studies terror and its psychological implications. “In many ways, we’re all feeling confused, scared, lost, a little afraid.”
That feeling is not unfounded: The numbers of murders and other violent crimes have surpassed levels not seen in the metro Denver region in nearly three decades. The Mile High City’s reported murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults jumped 25 percent between 2020 and 2021. In Aurora, shootings were up almost 36 percent from 2020 to 2021; the 2021 numbers were more than double the statistics from 2019. A report by two former Colorado district attorneys for the Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to the protection of Colorado’s economy, says the state had the third-highest reported crime rate per 100,0000 residents in the United States this past year, behind Louisiana and New Mexico. The Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority reported this past summer that vehicle thefts in the state were up 65 percent from July 2019 to July 2021.
The crime isn’t limited to the metro area’s urban core. In Parker—a suburb 25 miles southeast of the Mile High City—vehicle thefts were up 18 percent from October 2020 to October 2021, according to the Parker Police Department. Reported burglaries were up 17 percent in the town during that same time period, while reported thefts were up 53 percent. “Even the smartest crime analysts are struggling to understand what the data is saying,” said Chris Peters, a commander with the Parker police. “Are the last two years an outlier, or is this part of a bigger trend?”
The upswing in crime has come at a time when prosecutions are down. District attorneys’ statistics in the metro area show the number of filings for felony crimes fell roughly 26 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to an analysis of data by 5280. Misdemeanor prosecutions are relatively flat, which prosecutors say may be the result of former felony crimes being reclassified as misdemeanors under new state laws. Juvenile case filings dropped nearly 50 percent in many jurisdictions over the same two-year span, reflecting a statewide change in how minors now are handled within the criminal justice system.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bump in crime has only heightened deep political divisions in the state, particularly after Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly passed some of the nation’s most sweeping criminal justice reforms over the past three years. In the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the subsequent protests over police abuses, Colorado lawmakers have tackled issues from incarceration to bonds to an effort to reclassify certain crimes as less severe. Most famously, the Legislature in 2020 approved Senate Bill 217, a police reform bill that included a first-of-its-kind provision that would make individual officers liable for up to $25,000 in civil damages if they knowingly violate the law while in uniform. The Atlantic called the legislation “groundbreaking.”
That seminal legislation, however, has done nothing to help align the views of the two major political parties as they relate to crime and criminal justice. State Democrats have cited the “police legitimacy crisis” following the 2020 protests, as well as an increase in gun ownership coupled with a pandemic that exacerbated already existing inequities in education, housing, and mental health treatment, as reasons for the explosion in criminal activity. Republicans have argued that social justice platforms in the Legislature have created an atmosphere in which criminals are emboldened, police feel unsupported, and victims believe their humanity has been placed below that of perpetrators.
Beth McCann, Denver’s district attorney, said that her office is “on the right path” when it comes to prosecuting violent crime but that recent changes to state laws may have had unintended consequences that need legislative remedies this year. In particular, she pointed to a bipartisan 2019 state House bill that reduced possession of four grams or less of Schedule I and II drugs—including fentanyl—from a felony to a misdemeanor. McCann supported the bill but says fentanyl possession should carry stiffer penalties and explained she is “very concerned about the proliferation of drug-addicted people who are creating dangerous conditions and are thumbing their noses at police, because they know it’s a minor crime and they feel like nothing is going to happen to them.”
Revisions to current laws could be made throughout this year’s legislative session, which ends in May. As crimes surged statewide, however, some legislators were already pulling back late last session from more progressive criminal justice reforms. Democratic lawmakers withdrew a proposal in 2021 that would have prevented pre-K through high school students from being referred to police, ticketed, or arrested for misdemeanors, petty offenses, and municipal code violations while at school. This past summer, a state Senate bill that would have limited police from making arrests for low-level felony drug possessions and would have repealed the cash-only bail process for some other offenses was killed in the House Finance Committee amid questions about legislative overreach.
“If what you care about is a more just society, you have to hear both the folks who are victims of crime and those who are charged with crimes,” said Representative Matt Gray, a former prosecutor who was one of two Democrats who logged votes against the Senate bill. “Both are humans. We can’t be so passionate about one side that we erase the humanity of the other side. What we’re seeing are the inherent tensions in the system, and it’s pretty obvious no single person has all the answers.”
The teenager had gotten the car for free from a neighbor a year earlier. It was a 25-year-old Honda Civic—a fixer-upper, for sure—but it was his fixer-upper.
Travis Neider Jr. was 17, a senior at Montbello High School in Denver, and had a part-time job sorting packages for UPS. He’d gotten the gig thinking he’d use some savings to turn the Civic into something special. When he’d made enough to buy a turbo for his engine, he installed it himself, with help from his dad and YouTube.
By early August, the extra boost of power from the turbo was evaporating. He found an auto repair shop eight miles away, in Arapahoe County, that worked on modified cars. Neider Jr. drove his Civic to the shop, Import Sports Performance, which occupied the corner of a strip mall along East Iliff Avenue, near Aurora. A mechanic would do a diagnostic test on the vehicle and get back to Neider Jr. It was August 13, 2020.
When the work was completed the next day, an employee parked the Civic behind the shop, next to a blue Porsche. There’d been a rash of vehicle break-ins since the beginning of the pandemic, and Import Sports Performance had taken the unusual step of keeping vehicle doors unlocked. Better to have a thief open a door and take something, the thinking went, than to have someone smash a window and take something.
Around 2 p.m., a man entered the shop. He was there for the Porsche, he told an employee. The employee knew it wasn’t the man’s car and asked him to leave. The man lit a cigarette in the showroom. Again, the employee demanded the man leave.
Minutes later, the man, who had walked outside, was standing next to the Honda Civic. He opened the door, pulled out a screwdriver, and jammed the tip into the ignition. When Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputies arrived not long after, they saw the man walking through a parking lot, still holding the tool.
Neider Jr. was at home with his mother when he got the call from the shop. Someone tried to steal your car, the voice on the other end said. The police are here. “My heart sank,” Neider Jr., now 19, said. When Neider Jr.’s father, Travis Neider Sr., pulled up to the shop, he saw at least four sheriff’s deputies outside. “I wanted to see the guy who did this,” Neider Sr. said. “I wanted to press charges.”
But the suspect was gone. Deputies were apologetic, but they said there wasn’t anything they could do. COVID-19 protocols prevented them from arresting the man, even though there were multiple witnesses, because jails weren’t accepting nonviolent arrestees due to the virus. Because the suspect hadn’t attacked someone, the best they could do was take a report and get the suspect’s name, date of birth, and home address.
The report listed the offenses: second-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft; criminal attempt to commit a class five or class six felony; criminal mischief less than $300; and first-degree criminal trespass. “A guy basically tried to commit grand theft auto, and they let him walk?” said Neider Jr., who showed up later and saw his damaged car. “How is this justice?”
Eighteen months after the failed auto theft, there’s no record of a court filing with the 18th Judicial District. The alleged suspect later was charged with multiple drug offenses in Arapahoe and Douglas counties. This past summer, he was also accused of stealing items out of another vehicle. When the man failed to appear for his arraignment hearing in December, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Father and son found a replacement ignition at a junkyard. The kid installed it himself. After some time, he saved enough to buy a second car. He paid $700 for a 1989 Nissan Pulsar that’d been sitting in an Evergreen barn. “It had chicken feathers in the vents,” Neider Jr. said. His father joked that the vehicle’s body color was “white and rust.”
Like the Honda Civic, the ’89 Pulsar would be another project. Neider Jr. would eventually need to invest in a new transmission. He couldn’t wait to get started on it. But one morning this past summer, Neider Jr. woke up and went outside. The Pulsar was gone.
Joe Roland was a lot of things, but he wasn’t the kind of guy who did things for himself all that often. He’d served a tour in Iraq with the Army and had helped run a janitorial services company for the past decade. He was a doer, the type of man who liked getting his hands dirty, who’d get on his knees in dress slacks and scrub a toilet just right to make sure his employees didn’t ever question what a good job looked like. Now, he wanted to do something for himself. He wanted to buy a car, one he liked and thought was priced to sell. His wife, Jossline, said he deserved it.
The 2017 Toyota RAV4 looked great in the texts from the seller. Solid vehicle, good gas mileage, decent in the snow. The kind of car a dad of five should be driving. He’d found the Toyota on an app called LetGo. He contacted the owner, who said it had been his mother’s vehicle. The seller suggested they meet the night of August 14, maybe at 11:30.
Joe had wanted his oldest, Madison, who was 17, to come along that night. They’d spent the previous five years flipping cars together. It was a dad-daughter bonding thing he started after Madison moved from her mother’s house, in Wisconsin, to live in their two-story home in Aurora.
But Madison was running late after dropping off her boyfriend. She was on her way, but her dad wanted to get the deal done. He couldn’t let the Toyota get away, and Jossline had offered to take her stepdaughter’s place. She’d been getting ready for bed, and her favorite silver necklace was already on top of the small table next to the bed.
Joe called Madison as he was pulling out of the driveway. “Don’t let Joe Joe go to bed before I get home,” Joe told his daughter, referring to his 10-year-old son. He’d promised he would play Fortnite with his boy, and Joe always kept his promises.
Joe texted the seller, who’d identified himself as James Worthy on LetGo, to say he’d meet him at the scheduled time. Joe said they should meet at the Petco, at Southlands Mall, in east Aurora. At about 11:30 p.m., they spotted each other in the parking lot.
The guy selling the vehicle looked to be around Madison’s age. Joe was combat-tested from his military days, but he wasn’t exactly a hard-ass: He took special joy in helping Madison’s friends figure out the challenges of life. He must have let his guard down when the kid said he’d brought the wrong vehicle’s title for the sale. The teenager asked if the Rolands would follow him to an apartment complex a few miles away.
The two vehicles pulled into the complex’s parking lot on East Cornell Circle in Aurora. The teenager got out of the Toyota and walked toward the Rolands, who were still in their Honda Pilot. Joe had an envelope with cash and was ready to complete the purchase. The young man stepped up to Joe’s driver-side window, pulled a 9mm handgun, and demanded the money.
Joe grabbed the teen’s arm. The vehicle rolled forward. The teenager fired five shots. He grabbed $3,000 that was sitting atop the center console and ran. It was 11:49 p.m.
She keeps her memories in the diary her father gave her for her 14th birthday. It didn’t mean much then, that turquoise leather cover, the blank sheets of paper, that little metal lock. Now, it’s one of the most important things she owns. Madison could not have survived all the days after August 14, 2020, without it.
The life Madison had with her father and stepmother had been brief. She was 12 when she arrived in Colorado; she felt out of place at school. As it would be for many teenagers, navigating new relationships with her siblings and stepmother wasn’t always easy. Jossline had a law degree, and she was tough and determined and could balance a demanding work schedule with an even more demanding life being a mother to, now, five children. Over time, Madison grew to respect and then to love her stepmother. Eventually she began to think of Jossline as Mom.
Today, she writes notes to her dead father in the diary he gave her. She collects memories of him and of Jossline. The diary entries are serious, funny, mundane.
Once, Joe was horsing around with the kids and got stuck in the enclosed slide at a Burger King. There was the trip to Lake Powell with the family’s new boat, a 16-footer. She wrote about how the kids once broke Jossline’s favorite vase during a pillow fight and how it took Jossline three weeks to realize it was missing. There was the night when Madison was singing in a recital; her father had FaceTimed a friend but dropped the phone, midsong. “Who needs to see when you can just listen to that beautiful voice?” Joe said to his buddy. It’s all there in the diary.
“I don’t get to make another moment with them,” says Madison, now 19, as she drives to her job as a nanny in a house 10 minutes from the one she once shared with her parents and half siblings. She had been trying to figure out life as a high school kid when her parents were murdered for $3,000. A few months before her parents were killed, Madison had gone on a camping trip with her dad. They talked about the newfound responsibilities Madison would have as she got older, about relationships and how her father believed fiercely in her and what she might do with her life. On the night he died, Joe had told his daughter he wanted to have another talk like that one.
After her parents died, Madison moved in with her boyfriend and his parents. She says they make her feel safe, less alone. Her half siblings—Joe Joe, Layla, Mason, and Lily—now live with Jossline’s sister in Ohio. Madison talks to them on the phone every couple of months, but it’s not the same. The youngest, Mason, was just four years old when Joe and Jossline were murdered. Madison has made scrapbooks for her siblings with photos of the family together, on the boat or at home with friends. “I never want them to forget anything about their parents,” she says.
Madison thinks she’ll start college later this year. Maybe she’ll spend a couple of years at a less expensive school—to save some money—a decision she knows would have made her parents smile. She’s thought about majoring in criminal justice; maybe she’ll become a victim advocate someday. She thinks her parents would be proud. She’s experienced terrible trauma, but instead of running from it, Madison wants to take power from it. She wants to give it meaning. She wants to use it to help others.
James Worthy’s trial was planned for late this winter; a date had not been announced before this story went to press. Madison has read every single word in the probable cause affidavit. She’s been to every hearing, no matter how difficult it was to sit in that courtroom. She knows every detail of that night.
She also knows his real name is not James Worthy but Kyree Brown. He was 18 when he pulled the trigger. Brown has a history of juvenile crimes—including felony theft and robbery, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation—and at least one failure to appear in court on a trespassing violation.
Thirteen days after the shootings, authorities tracked Brown to a house in north Aurora. The teenager was arrested after a brief chase. “Brown advised he…made the decision to shoot Joseph and indicated that during this time that he accidentally shot Jossline,” the probable cause affidavit reads. Shortly after the murders, Brown took the Toyota to the corner of Havana Street and East Colfax Avenue and set it on fire. The car hadn’t belonged to his mother; he’d stolen it several days earlier.
Madison is still trying to understand the young man who killed her parents. From the reports she’s read, she thinks Brown comes off as unrepentant. They’ve made eye contact in court. Brown, she says, once shook his head at her.
It’s been 515 days since her family was destroyed. “I was robbed,” she says. She thinks about the wedding she will have someday without her parents, the children she might one day raise without their grandparents’ wisdom. She thinks about the talk her dad wanted to have with her, about the bond that was growing between her and Jossline.
Five hundred and 15 days, but it still feels like yesterday. Madison has watched their home’s doorbell video from that night. Her dad is behind the wheel as he pulls out of the driveway and onto the street. Jossline is in the passenger seat. It’s nearly midnight in Colorado. August 15 will be just another day.
Joe hits the gas, and they’re gone.